David Cameron and the Language of the End of The World


Throughout the duration of a political term, rhetoric is the one thing most people would ask a journalist to uncover, rather than repeat. Rhetoric is what brought “axis of evil” to the world; it is why the term “social mobility” came into common use. Rhetorical language is the nerve centre of provocation and at the same time, a masquerade for the more technical, mathematic and legal terminology that begets and describes most changes in political policy. Rheotric is its translation – and it is within this process that all the power of persuasion an belief is contained.

At the end of the 2012 summer there was a very bitter taste left in Birmingham after the Party conference being held there: the city whose council is coalition led, the one that had to endure that massive, eye-watering £62 million worth of cuts. Natch. The Conservative Party, like most political parties, sometimes partake in reforms that make your face and arse squirm in fear. Other times, it’s what they say. 2013 is going to prove extremely interesting for them, and the increasing frequency of fuzzy logic and apocalyptic wording in the PM’s speeches could go some way to explaining some of the language we will hear much more of this year.

Language and Rhetoric

Complex language separates humans from animals – but it’s primary basis within the neurobiology of the brain is what also makes us the same, for language is the precursor to our emotional decisions and emotional reactions. And if language can hit us where it hurts: our most base reactions, that’s how we become persuaded by one swing of the pendulous vocab or the other. For human beings young and old, pithy phrasings and repetition are most useful, as smaller chunks of words require a smaller amount of processing from the short-term memory to the long-term memory. Just ask Derren Brown. Just like the positioning of the following aphorism: it’s all relative.

And it’s David Cameron’s use of English which seems most grossly fascinated with what we may term as the lexical fields of ‘Death, ‘Last Chances’ and ‘War’.

End Of The World

This blog post could sprawl into a giant essay, but for your lunchbreak’s sake and further reading, we’ll look at some of the most interesting uses of Death Language.

The most quoted inference from a speech worldwide is the party conference speech often dubbed ‘Hour of Reckoning’ by the media – a pithy, memorable soundbite at the very least; and a dark, foreboding phrase at its worst.

“Hour of Reckoning” is marvellously religious, extremely Christian and is loaded with connotations. It is an aphorism taken directly from the Bible, simply replacing ‘day’ with ‘hour’: could this be a deliberate move, reducing the idea of time in order to create a sense of urgency?:

“What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?” – from the Book of Isaiah

This is a quote which, with a simple internet search (thanks utilitarian internet!), reveals what it is often cross referenced with:

“They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” – from the Gospel of Luke

Certainly, the above is language for The End of The World. And even without accepting the codes and inferred constructs of a patriarchal religion, I would take this to be bullying, intimidating language as it refutes possibilities with pessimism.

Let’s move on to the next example.

“Because the truth is, we’re in a global race today. And that means an hour of reckoning for countries like ours. Sink or swim. Do or decline.”

“Sink or Swim” – like any aphorism, actually – is not a valid sentence, in terms of strict grammar rules because there is:

(1) no object

(2) no verb

(3) …and the subject is only implied by the first sentence used to frame the entire construct: ‘we’re’.

The word ‘sink‘ itself is completely loaded has much darker connotations than simply ‘fail’. Interesting, even though the latter is perhaps something more people are scared of than the former, upon first thoughts.

‘Sink’ is much more in keeping with the semantic fields of death, finality and suffering – used by politicians on a daily basis. Their connotations are somewhat sinister and pessimistic, and the frequency with which they are used is not dissimilar to linguistic conditioning, as we will discover in the final example in this article. Sink is a world we may link to drowning, finality and death. Corect me if I’m wrong, because we may also link to to our kitchen. But then, that would be a noun.

So let’s look at the next falsely-nominalised contrasting pair.

“Do or Decline”

This again is not a valid sentence, and has no grammatical value. For a linguist, this is pure rhetoric which has no meaning and its understanding relies completely on the internal context of the listener. The use of ‘decline’ as a false-opposite to ‘do’ is in itself, is very very clever. In Logic, it is known as a ‘fallacy’, as it follows the basic notion of opposites but in terms of reasoning, it makes no sense. False choice fallacies are often used  during torture and interrogation practice, particularly when attempting false-evidence ploys when trying to achieve confession. It is otherwise known as deception.

The word ‘decline’ is also extremely negative, with its synonyms relating to the ideas of declension and in particular, physical injury (most-used synonyms include; ‘fall’, ‘degenerate’, ‘devolve’, ‘recede’, ‘decay’). It is a verb which can exist on its own with meaning, unlike it’s purported other half, ‘do’.

Do is what you could call a very general verb. It’ll do anything, so to speak. The natural opposite of do is simply ‘not do’ – it is an auxiliary verb used as a partner to another verb which has to take a direct object, another verb, or a nominalised verb (e.g. ‘Can you do the cleaning?’ ‘Sue did not walk home with Andrew’). When your brain hears broken constructions like ‘Do or decline’ it naturally wants to fix and understand it. Basically, the idea is to get you thinking ‘if I don’t do [something], I will ‘decline’. Again: it all relies on the context the listener gives to the speech’s interpretation, not the actual substance of the words. As we have shown here, there is no substance at all except to trick you.

“My job – our job – is to make sure that in this 21st century, as in the centuries that came before, our country, Britain, is on the rise.”

mind over matter

You know it already. The parenthesis here is crucial in the set-up of rhetoric and is a common politician’s M.O: creating an in-discourse grammar; a meta-language of ownership, where the speaker attempts to make the First Person equivocal to a Universal Person to create a sense of sharing meaning – and address the listener directly. This structuring is familiar within, interestingly, therapeutic contexts.

Following this is the word ‘rise’ – which, during one particular speech, is used repetitively at the end of sentences. Used in this positioning, it is not a noun but an intransitive verb – a word which acts by itself. Specifically, something or someone can ‘rise’ without doing something to an object; unlike ‘raise’. When ‘rise’ is used in this way, there has to be a context (because English is not a context-free computation language that just means itself and inside of itself over and over…) i.e., something has to have fallen, or died, in order to ‘rise’, or get up. And there’s the kicker: after all the End of the World language, this is the resolution given. To rise. As Arisotle said before, here it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t give an answer. It is pure rhetoric which relies on you to believe that something has fallen or died. 

‘Rise’ is also a word used extremely often in one rather famous book: The Bible.

Religious Language and Rhetoric

Religious language does not necessarily create or prefix submissive behaviour – however, hearing it before at regular intervals for many years before hand does create an automatic grammar – and one on which we can base our own behaviours on.This is because of everything we relate to a phrase – its context. It’s all about context, most literally. For example, to directly address ‘Hail Mary’ to a person is to just use an aphorism on its own. However, ‘Hail Mary’ said to someone raised as a Roman Catholic will more than likely begin an internal language sequencing based on previous repetitions and conditioning: ‘full of grace/The Lord is with Thee…’ etc.

This is one of the reasons why rhetoric, religions and hypnosis are known to be extremely powerful, and lends a large leaning toward the idea that language can be prescriptive of human behaviours.

Aristotle said that rhetoric of could be treated as separate to ‘real’ language based on fact, or truth values :”this is the function of no other art; for each of the others is instructive and persuasive about its own subject: for example, medicine about health and disease and geometry about the properties of magnitudes and arithmetic about numbers and similarly in the case of the other arts and sciences.

He goes on: “…but rhetoric seems to be able to observe the persuasive about “the given,” so to speak. That, too, is why we say it does not include technical knowledge of any particular, defined genus.

…That is to say, people don’t use rhetoric to explain things. Nietzsche thought he was disagreeing when he said:

“The power to discover and to make operative that which works and impresses, with respect to each thing, a power which Aristotle calls rhetoric, is, at the same time, the essence of language; the latter is based just as little as rhetoric is upon that which is true, upon the essence of things”

As much as Nietzsche liked to be the renegade, it is quite cute how they both agree, loads. They both clearly state the rhetoric is not used as a linguistic engine of truth. It is ‘essence’; and it assumes ‘the given’ – again, a hugely powerful tool to have. Rhetoric is, quite simply: charm.

And that’s it. It seems David Cameron is quite the connoisseur of linguistic manipulation…

See if you can spot it in the next political speech – from any politician – you read over the coming year. It certainly brings us back to the ideas behind why truthful, impartial political reporting is now, more important than ever.

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